Down Home in Hard Times:
A Rural Family's Perspective of the Great Depression
This paper was written b in the early 1990's using interviews of actual family members and family papers of the era. It is a look at the Depression years in Stewart County, Tennessee through the eyes of the elders of one family, one time residents of the Tip Top area. Political views, economic perspectives, education, and reminiscences of the time are all covered in the overview of this family, representative of many rural families of the area. Two of those interviewed have passed away since the time of this research.
An entire nation was blanketed by the effects of the Great Depression by 1933. perhaps those most able to deal with its effects were rural families already well accustomed to not only the work ethic, but also to a curious blend of self-sufficiency and communal spirit. My wife's family, of Model, Tennessee (in what is now the Land Between the Lakes region), is typical of such survivors of the Depression Era.
***** (b. 1883 d. 1968) in 1933 owned 190 acres of farm and timberland. He farmed, raised tobacco, and sold railroad ties to make a living for his family. Only occasional farm loans were needed. The farm had been in the family for generations, some long forgotten ancestor having purchased it "with gold". ****. and his wife, had five children: F (b. 1910), F (b. 1911), F (b. 1918), F (b. 1921) and M (b. 1931, d. 1984). At the time of the Depression, the two oldest daughters had left home, leaving three children to educate, feed and clothe.
The family emerged virtually unscathed physically from the Depression. They remembered having "plenty to eat, enough to wear, that was about all." "Mama sold butter, milk and chickens," Helen recalls, "When Mama sold chickens in the spring, she'd make our dresses. Nobody had a lot of clothes, but we had plenty. It's just not like it is now. Papa killed hogs. We always had plenty to eat. We got tired of country hams. Now it's a luxury!"
The family did what they have always done- relied upon their own self-sufficiency. They knew how to can, dry fruit, quilt, and make soap. Doing so for this family was not a return to a forgotten art, but an extension of a lifestyle they had never forsaken. Their knowledge stood them in good stead. Such self-reliance had a few years before labeled the family as "old fashioned" in some circles. Now, through the pressure of necessity, many town dwellers would return to the rural environment from which they had migrated and attempt to relearn those lost arts.
A son-in-law jovially relates some of his memories of returning city dwellers. "I guess things got pretty bad up there (Granite City, Illinois). Soon's that Jackson boy and them come back I saw them opening up a can of blackberries with some cornbread for breakfast. That's a pretty rough breakfast!" Indeed, it would seem a rough breakfast to a man accustomed even during the depression to a breakfast of homemade biscuits, molasses, gravy, country ham and eggs.
He further relates the story of another couple, two of Model's residents, who had earlier migrated to Granite City in search of a better lifestyle, and found themselves stranded during the Depression. "They were living in a shotgun house- you know- no hallway, one room behind another opening into each other. Well, they had brought back some wine in fruit jars from down home and had them stored in the center room. Howard was on one end of the house and Anna on the other when one of those things exploded. Now they'd been having things pretty rough and Howard had said something about suicide. Anna heard that jar go off and was afraid to go check on Howard, afraid he'd done something to himself. And Howard- well, Howard was sitting in the other end of the house thinking the same thing! Untellin' how long they set there!"
The family had full stomachs and a sound roof over their heads. What they could not do for themselves, they could rely upon the community for. The communities of the rural environment were close-knit and caring of each other. There were unwritten laws governing what was a man's responsibility to do for his own family, and what was a neighbor's responsibility to do for a neighbor. Another son-in-law recalls that all a barn raising cost a man was " a meal spread out". At hog killing time a family let the neighbors that helped "take any piece they wanted home." Harvesting was different. "You paid a man for that- fifty cents a day or a barrel of corn."
Education was to the family, as to most rural families of the time, a luxury. All the family members remember having only a one-room school available in the community. Impassable roads and distance made it virtually impossible for anyone to obtain beyond an eighth grade education. The students frequently missed a good portion of school in the spring for planting, and a good portion in the fall for harvesting and hog killing. A high school was located in Dover, about fifteen miles away, but no buses were usually available to transport students. "Some years," it was recalled , "If you could walk several miles to meet the bus and had two dollars a month to pay the county, you could go to school." Most often this was not even an option. If a family could afford to do so, they "boarded" their teenager with a town family while the child completed his education. The family was able to do this for two daughters using a government settlement received following the death of ***'s brother, during World War I. The two girls finished high school in Dover and attended two years of normal school. The family later saw to it that two other children finished high school, believing firmly that "a good education is something nobody can take away."
A daughter taught school for forty years. She vividly remembers teaching approximately forty students of all ages during the Depression years. "Teachers were plentiful in those days," she recalls, "You had to know your board member pretty well to get a job." Another qualification for a woman teacher was to be unmarried, although it was perfectly acceptable for a male teacher to be married. The schools were barely a shelter, bereft of resource materials. She stoked fires, and held cake walks and pie suppers to raise money for supplies. The teacher was fund-raiser, nurse, counselor, principal and janitor. "A teacher was required to board in the community where she taught and take part in the community activities," she relates. She was boarding in such a community in 1937, at the time of the Great Flood. She remembers the water rushing under the floor boards of the house as she made her way to the front door. With water lapping at her ankles, she climbed into a canoe at the front porch and paddled to higher ground.
The one thing the family remembers having little of during this period was cash. "Everyone was in the same condition. No money, "
"There wasn't any keeping up with the Jones. Wasn't any Jones!" echoes another.
The family returned to an earlier system of obtaining goods they could not produce themselves, that of barter. Farm help was most often paid for with a barrel of corn. One remembers taking a case of eggs to the store each week to exchange for such commodities as flour, sugar, and thread. For change the family would receive a due bill which they could later exchange for any goods needed. Another recalls that as a young teacher during this period, the county often "went broke" and gave her "warrants" instead of checks. The "warrants" amounted to what is more commonly known as an "I.O.U." When *****'s property tax came due, he would give his daughter what cash he had on hand for her "warrants" and then give the warrants back to the county in payment for his taxes. Another recalls the manner in which people paid for medical services. "Old Doc Scarborough ended up owning from Cal Creek to below Tharpe, a thousand or more acres. People would get in debt to him and just give him a hundred or more acres."
This barter system worked well for the family. There were no luxuries, but necessities were well taken care of. Banks closed all around with little direct effect on the family, which was not dependent on cash anyway. The family draws a blank on any question regarding the stock market crash. As one states, "The stock market was a foreign country as far as we were concerned." Property value did decrease which apparently did affect the family. Family members did not relate this story, and those living may have been unaware of the fact. A 1921 property tax receipt shows 178 acres owned by **** valued at $5000. By 1929, those same 178 acres were valued at only $1500. This may have been in part caused by the Depression started in 1929, but it must be noted that before the nationwide Depression people of the region were already having economic trouble. This was primarily caused by the frequent flooding of the rivers bordering the area. The floods often threatened livestock and crops. The property devaluation may actually have been a blessing in disguise. *****'s tax bill in 1921 was $57.50. By 1933, when he owned an additional twelve acres and at a time when cash was not readily available, his taxes had dropped to $32.17.
One family member not only survived the Depression, but apparently found her lifestyle enhanced during the period. A daughtre married during this time. Her husband owned and operated a corner grocery store in Clarksville, Tennessee. A grocery store of this type managed to compete quite well with larger groceries of the time, primarily because they offered credit to loyal customers at a time when credit was desperately needed. As she relates, many times goods were never paid for, however, apparently the young couple did quite well. During the Depression the couple built the first house to be constructed in Clarksville for a number of years. She recalls it being a "model home". She recalls the lumber company and contractor using it as a showplace for potential customers. By today's standards, the home is scarcely a showplace. During the Depression era, however, the brand new home with its shining fixtures and hardwood floors must have seemed a bright ray of hope to the visitors who came to view. She recalls payments on her new home being $20 per month, "and it was hard to come up with too!" Hard to come up with it may well have been, but they managed to pay off their home in three years and begin building another house as rental property.
The family's political views were strengthened during the Great Depression. Family views on Herbert Hoover's role in instigation of the Depression ranged from "no use for him," to the reply, "I guess everybody blamed him. Don't know that he had much to do with it, but we had to blame somebody." If Herbert Hoover got thumbs down, Franklin Roosevelt certainly got thumbs up. Roosevelt's New Deal concepts apparently affected the family to a great extent. this man's entire life was directed by the new program. He began working under NYA, "cleaning up around schoolhouses, doing whatever the teacher wanted." Soon he was part of CCC, primarily involved in road construction. A fever he caught during this time earned him his first trip out of Stewart County, Tennessee. A doctor at the CCC camp sent him to Key West, Florida to recuperate. The money he received for his "sick leave" he used to obtain a Model A. He used his CCC connections and experience to obtain a job at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He worked there as a maintenance man and then foreman until his retirement.
Most of the government programs were greeted by the family with relief and approval. Even TVA, a later program is given grudging respect. It is no secret to those acquainted with people of this area that a thread of bitterness toward the TVA courses through the veins of many families. This family is no exception. The farm was among those claimed by the government for the formation of a wildlife refuge in the Land Between the Lakes. The family was bitter over "all those old people having to lose their farms," and "getting next to nothing for their places." According to one, "They didn't do anything but let it grow up and turn a bunch of animals loose." When asked about the dams being built to control flooding, a candid answer was, "Dams were supposed to be for farmers, to take care of the floods. But tell me how that can be when they moved out everybody it would effect anyway?" In spite of the bitterness, when pressed, the family will admit the presence of TVA has not been a bad thing in their lives. There is a grudging respect for the jobs and tourism it has created.
The family's attitudes were deeply etched by the steady erosion of hard times. **** never lost his air of self-reliance. By the sixties, he had never quite given way to trust in modern conveniences. He allowed electricity to be installed only for purposes of lighting, but he kept a kerosene lantern fueled. He grudgingly allowed a daughter-in-law to install an electric cookstove, but kept his old Ben Franklin and continued to heat using wood stoves. Pressed by his children, who didn't like driving to the country to check on him, he allowed a party-line telephone to be installed. He never had running water, a television, or an automobile. When age interrupted his ability to farm, he rented his land and tobacco base, and sold timber. A year before his death in 1968 he finally relented to the inevitable and allowed TVA to claim the land that had served him well. The "back to the earth" movement of the sixties caused smiles to play on upon the lips of his children. All had left the farm. "I don't want to live that way. I don't want any part of it," declared a daughter, "I was raised that way!" Unfortunately, the next generation, ****'s grandchildren, felt very differently and wished they might turn back the clock and live as their grandparents had done.
There is no doubt that Roosevelt's role as the helmsman guiding the country out of a depression affected family politics. As one states, "The Republicans are for the rich! I'm a Democrat! With a capital D!" Hearing the family reiterate their political stance again and again cause one to wonder how much of the attitude stems from family tradition and how much from remembrances of a hard time. Perhaps the adages the family lives by point stronger to the affect the Depression had upon them. "Keep your wagon in the clear," my wife remembers her grandfather admonishing. The family does that. None of ***'s children believe in credit. If they can't pay cash, they don't buy. The family believes strongly in honesty, hard work, and saving. They believe in each adult taking responsibility financially. "When you marry, you marry off, not on," Thomas Henry told my wife (his daughter), "and watch who you are marrying. One can throw it out the back door quick as the other brings it in the front." "When times get bad you do what you have to do." "People can live on less." "You put your shoulder to the harness and you pull a little harder." So the adages pass through the family generations.
Those adages have served the family well. I see the results in my wife. I see glimpses in her children. I know adages such as these must have passed through families of similar background. However, I have to wonder how those adages would serve our people today in the event of another Great Depression. The people of that era survived not only because of a work ethic, but also because of a tradition of self-sufficiency. Our evolving culture has created a generation who not only has lost the art and craft of self-sufficiency, but the physical resources, such as land, with which to be self-reliant. Perhaps it is time for inventory to be taken on the part of both our people and our government. Perhaps this country should not only try to avoid another depression, but devote some time to planning contingencies in the event of one.
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